Special report: Life in witness protection

Ian's testimony put this murderous gang behind bars. His reward? To leave his family and live the rest of his days in witness protection. For the first time, one of Britain's 1,000 marked men tells his tale

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:10

On a sunny June morning in 2007, Ian left his home in Manchester's Moss Side. With his wife and baby son, he packed one suitcase into the boot of his car and drove away for the last time. Three years on he has never returned to the city where he had spent his whole life, and has not told any members of his family why he left or where he now lives.

Ian is in the witness protection programme. He gave evidence in two gangland prosecutions which helped convict 12 of Manchester's most notorious criminals, including Colin Joyce and Lee Amos. Described by the police as "the most dangerous men in Manchester," they led the Gooch Gang which for 20 years was responsible for murders, gangland shootings and turf wars in the Moss Side estate, an inner city area just south of Manchester city centre.

Ian is among about 1,000 people in the UK who live in witness protection for their own safety. But until now none of them has ever told their story. Even the methods police use to re-house and protect witnesses has been a closely-guarded secret.

In a conference centre in Euston, central London, we met Ian (not his real name). The venue was chosen by police and booked under a covert name. Such was their fear that Ian's identity could be compromised, detectives had visited the room the day before, and stood guard outside as we spoke. Sitting at the head of a long table is the grey-haired, middle-aged Ian. Wearing a blue checked shirt and a red baseball cap, he chewed his fingers nervously.

Ian's previous life was plagued by gun violence. Having grown up in Old Trafford, he later moved to Moss Side – an area so synonymous with gun crime it earned Manchester the nickname Gunchester. In 2007, shootings in Moss Side were so prevalent that it was described in court as like the Wild West.

Ian witnessed a shooting and on more than one occasion saw gang members hiding their weapons. He knew the information would be valuable to police and eventually decided to speak out.

"Moss Side was out of control," he said. "I would see boys that looked as young as 12 using guns, shooting at each other. For them it was easy to pull the trigger. To them killing someone is easy, they do not care. They would not think twice about killing me. So I told the police that the only way I would become a witness is if I was given a place to go, somewhere safe for me and my family."

That was where the witness protection team came in. Staffed by officers who do not work on criminal investigations, but specialise solely in protecting and hiding vulnerable witnesses, they met Ian and promised they could move him to a new location and, if he wanted, give him a new identity if he agreed to testify and leave Manchester forever.

Ian was taken to a hotel on the outskirts of the city and introduced to Bob, an officer from Greater Manchester Police's witness protection team. Ian said: "Bob told me he could help get me out of Manchester and that he could protect me, my partner and our child. I came home and thought about it. It was a difficult decision because we had just had a baby and also because I knew I would be leaving the rest of my family behind – my mother and brothers and sisters."

A week later Ian returned to the hotel and accepted the offer. He was told togo home, pack one suitcase – the police would move the rest of his belongings at a later date – and wait for a phone call. He told family members and neighbours that he was going on holiday.

Two days later he received a phone call from Bob. He was told that at 10am the next day he should leave his home and drive to a rendezvous point. From there he and his family were taken to Whitby, in north Yorkshire. They stayed in a holiday cottage for one month and were given £300 a week in "pocket money".

After a month they were taken to a flat in Middlesborough. There they spent the next five months and were told to tell any neighbours that their stay was temporary and that their own home had been flooded.

Part of that cover story – that it was a temporary location – was not a lie. Officers made Ian stay in Middlesborough for a further five months so that he could get to know the town and therefore convincingly tell people in his final location that it was where he had moved from.

In Middlesborough, Ian became frustrated. "I knew we would move after six months," he said. "I just didn't know where to. I was worried it would be somewhere I did not like and could not settle."

Six months after leaving Manchester Ian was finally taken to a town which he now calls home. The location is such a closely-guarded secret that it is the only detail Ian refuses to divulge during our interview. "I can't do that. It is just too dangerous."

Ian could have chosen his own location, but preferred to leave that to the police. He was given a choice of two homes in the new area and was asked to pick one. His new home, a terrace house, is smaller than the Moss Side home he left but still has a front and back garden.

Ian said: "It is a nice house, I do not have any complaints. It is not as good as the Moss Side house, but it is still good. The area is nicer and, although there is still some crime, there are no guns or shootings. It is somewhere I can bring my children up without worrying."

It is a council house, like his Moss Side home, and Ian still lives on benefits. Apart from the pocket money he was given during the first month and the furniture, nothing else was paid for by the police. In fact the only way he has benefited financially is through a £400 reward given to him by the judge for giving evidence.

Kim is the head of the Greater Manchester Police witness protection unit. Like most of the 200 or so witness protection officers in Britain she prefers only to use her first name for fear that the offenders she is protecting people from could target her. "In the eyes of the criminals we are the people who look after grasses," she said.

Kim and her team work to the maxim that anyone who enters the scheme will not see their standard of living drop, but neither can they expect to see it improve.

"You get the odd person that comes forward and thinks that it is going to be milk and honey and they are swiftly disappointed. We have to be completely honest with people and tell them that it is not going to be much fun. We quite readily admit that it is not comfortable. It can be very traumatic for people.

"When we train our officers we put them in a room and tell them to imagine being told that they are not going home from there. We tell them to imagine where they were going for dinner tonight, or where they were going to spend Christmas. And then imagine being told that none of it is going to happen. It is a dreadful process we ask these people to go through. It is a massive ask, all in the name of community justice.

"But for some people it is positive experience. Some people have had their lives blighted by crime or have spent their lives involved in criminality. Those people can see it as an opportunity for a fresh start with people who can advise them in how to turn their lives around."

Because so little is ever publicly confirmed about the witness protection scheme, it has become subject to many myths. One of these is that those who enter are given large lump sums of cash to restart their lives. This is untrue and Kim describes it as "Life on Mars stuff". The reason is that such payments would see defence lawyers claiming the witness has been induced into providing false testimony.

Indeed, while little is known about the witness protection scheme, Kim says that the lack of financial benefit is one of the only things members of the criminal fraternity are aware of. She said: "Many of the people who enter the scheme are what we call 'assisting offenders'. In other words, they have been involved in criminality but have decided to help us.

"Every one who enters has to sign a memorandum of understanding – a contract which states that we will protect them as long as they agree not to continue in criminal activity. It is at that point we lose a lot of people because they can make more money selling drugs or doing whatever it is they do."

The cost of witness protection is not as much as some reports suggest. Estimates of £250,000-plus as the cost of a new identity, particularly frustrates the officers. Paul, another of the team, adds: "Giving someone a new name costs as much as buying a new passport."

That is not to say witness protection is cheap. An average case can cost up to £50,000 a year, although it is usually less. And while officers might spend this much in the first year, costs for subsequent years are far cheaper. Much of the money is spent paying rent, bills and "wages" until a new home and job is found for the witness.

There are, on occasion, large one-off costs. "If it is deemed unsafe for a witness to continue driving his car then we will scrap it and buy another one. Another thing we will do is, if the witness owns a house and is forced to sell it quickly for less than it is worth, we will make up the difference. So if he has to sell a house for £130,000 and it is worth £140,000 we will pay them £10,000."

If an identity change is required, the witness will be allowed to choose his new name. But new identities are not as common as is believed. Paul explained: "Many of our clients simply cannot cope with a new identity. It is too much to remember."

In those instances it can be arranged for the witness to be removed from the electoral roll and other publicly-accessible databases where they could be traced by offenders they have testified against.

Ian does not have a new identity. But, unlike most people in the scheme, he has not seen any family members or former friends since he left his former home three years ago.

It is unusual. Witnesses are rarely cut off from everyone they know. But in Ian's case it was his choice. He explained: "I split up with my partner and we are not on good terms. But she still knows many members of my family. No one knows why I moved away and that is for my own safety. I have a large family and if I tell someone things could be leaked. I cannot trust all of my family.

"When left I told them I was going on holiday, I have not seen any of them since, but I have spoken to my mother and my brother on the phone. All I have told them is that after the holiday I decided to move away. I told them I had had enough of my previous partner and so I left Manchester. They believe that.

"I do miss my mother and I feel bad that I cannot tell her where I am, but she has not complained. She had just said 'good luck'. She has asked where I am and I have said when the time comes I will tell her. At the moment I cannot see a day when I will tell them."

As he is retired, the police did not need to find Ian a job. But in many instances the witness protection teams must help people find work. This is particularly difficult if the witnesses are professional people.

Kim said: "It is rare. But we have had people who are on a lot of money and it is very difficult to find them new jobs because we cannot expect them to take a cut in salary."

Nor in Ian's case did officers have to confront what is undeniably the biggest issue in the world of witness protection: the internet and, in particular, social networking sites such as Facebook.

Kim said: "Putting so much info on the net that your location becomes obvious is one of our biggest worries. If that happens then we have to move people again. There was one case where a teenage girl had been putting fairly innocuous details on the internet, but it all added up. The final straw came when she wrote that she had been shopping at the Bluewater shopping centre two minutes down the road. That gave the family's location away and we had to move them.

"It is incredibly difficult for the children because they sometimes do not understand why they have to suddenly stop using Facebook or MSN. You imagine a 14-year-old kid, who has been relocated and told they have had to stop seeing their friends, the temptation to use your mobile phone or the internet is huge, but we have to tell them not to do it.

"We give them back stories too because we are aware that they could tell people things at school. They are very basic stories like 'Dad has been relocated because of his work'. But the problem for us is that two weeks later when the kid has made a new best friend they tell them the truth."

The reasons for secrecy are obvious. If someone in the witness protection scheme was found and killed, it would be catastrophic. It has never happened. But officers are acutely aware of the possibility, and go to great lengths to keep the witnesses new locations secret. No-one outside of the scheme knows where witnesses are relocated to, and officers inside the scheme use different computer systems to prevent corrupt police getting access to their data.

But there have been failures in the system.

In 2004, John and Joan Stirland were shot dead by gangsters in retribution for a murder their son had committed. The couple had moved from Nottinghamshire to Lincolnshire for their own safety, but were not put into witness protection.

The failure of Nottinghamshire Police to put the couple into the scheme was later criticised by the coroner at the inquest. Each police force is responsible for its own witness protection and some devote little or no resources to this. It is these geographical discrepancies which has prompted the Accociation of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) and the Ministry of Justice to work on a proposal that would see a national witness protection scheme created – a work currently in progress.

But despite the emphasis on the importance of witness protection, there is still great reluctance for people to enter the scheme and, because of that, many murders remain unsolved. Kim says: "It is really difficult to get witnesses to come forward. There are very few people who are brave enough and community spirited enough."

For Ian though, it never crossed his mind to turn a blind eye. "I thought I should do it for the sake of improving the area. If I became a witness I knew the place would get better. Sometimes you have got to sacrifice things for other people. I never regret it because I think I have probably saved someone's life."

That's undoubtedly true. Ian's evidence helped police get 12 of Manchester's most dangerous criminals off the streets. In the months before his testimony, Moss Side was Manchester's epicentre of gun violence, with about 60 firearms incidents a month. That has now dropped to fewer than 20. The year Ian gave evidence, three people were shot dead. Since then, there has been just one.

But while Ian may have made the estate safer, he knows he has made enemies of some very dangerous men. Although he gave evidence from behind a screen, the details of his testimony as good as identified him to the defendants and made him a target for retribution.

He added: "That does make me worry, but I think it would be very difficult for them to find me. It is a big country so I just have to hope that they never find me."

'The Independent' has altered the name of the witness to protect his identity

Case study: A Moss Side story

For more than 20 years, the Gooch and Doddington gangs conducted their bloody feuds in full view of terrified Moss Side residents. They reckoned, rightly in many instances, that those who witnessed their lawless ways would be too scared to testify. But that belief was shattered early last year when 11 Gooch members were convicted.

Colin Joyce and Lee Amos (who got 39 and 35 years respectively for murder) were the gang's leaders. Having flooded the streets of Manchester with heroin and crack cocaine, they had then spent the profits weapons with which they attempted to enforce their supremacy over the Doddington gang.

At the height of the violence, which earned Manchester the nickname "Gunchester", the two gangs were responsible for 27 deaths and 250 non-fatal shootings in five years. Their victims included innocent teenagers as young as 13.

Bringing the culprits to justice proved difficult because witnesses were repeatedly terrorised. Many murders remain unsolved for the same reason. But with the conviction of Joyce, Amos and the rest in April 2009, the Moss Side wars have eased considerably. Gang shootings have fallen by 92 per cent. And only one person has been shot dead in the years since the gang was arrested.

The murdered couple failed by the system

John and Joan Stirland

In August 2003, Michael O'Brien killed Marvyn Bradshaw outside a pub in Nottingham. Bradshaw's associates wanted revenge but, rather than target O'Brien in prison, they went after his mother and her partner. Almost one year later John and Joan Stirland were shot dead in a gangland hit organised by Colin Gunn. But in those 12 months, the police repeatedly failed to offer the Stirlands adequate protection.

First the couple were shot at in their home in Nottingham. They survived and fled to a new house in Lincolnshire. But due to misinformation given by Nottinghamshire Police the Stirlands were not in the witness protection scheme at the time of their deaths.

They were mistakenly told they could only enter the scheme if they gave evidence against Mrs Stirland's son. Then they were wrongly told they would have to permanently cut all ties with family and friends.

When the couple fled to Lincolnshire, local police were not told that two potential targets were living on their patch. This case has played a pivotal role in bringing about a national witness protection scheme.